Friday, June 14, 2019

Parashat Naso: Anonymity

Thoughts on Parashat Naso 2019
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Following instruction of the three verses of birkat kohanim, God instructed Moshe:

And they [the kohanim] shall set My name over Bnei Yisrael, and I myself shall bless them. (Bemidbar 6:27)

The Hakhamim explained that the call to “set His name” over the people referred to speaking the “shem ha-mefurash” – the clandestine name of God whose utterance was confined to the four walls of the Mishkan.[1] Adhering to this tradition of secrecy, the Rabbis of the Talmud were careful in their transmittance of God’s sacred names, teaching them only on occasion and to their best and most trustworthy students.[2]

Concealment of a name is most appropriate for Sefer Bemidbar. Bemidbar continues the narrative begun in Sefer Shemot of Am Yisrael’s exit from Egypt and march to the Land of Israel. These two books, however, are actually so different from one another. As the title of Shemot suggests, the sefer presents the “names” and stories of several individuals. First teaching about the seventy people who descended into Egypt, Shemot then details the birth and growth of the nation’s future leader Moshe. Sefer Bemidbar, in contrast, is referred to by the Hakhamim as the “Humash of Counting,” and more widely known as the “Book of Numbers.” Generally neglecting the “names,” self-identities and the stories of individuals, Bemibar is the story of a nation. It tells about the trials and travails of a vast number of “nameless” people.

Forty years ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch commented: “Success in our society has to be ratified by publicity.” He wrote that “the tycoon who lives in personal obscurity” and “the empire builder who controls the destinies of nations from behind the scenes” are vanishing types.[3] Akiko Busch more recently realized, “It has become routine to assume that the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do.” Our society’s sustained obsession with social media and the ongoing legal debates regarding surveillance and cyber privacy represent the “public” and “exposed” lives that we now all lead. Indeed, Busch noted that the contemporary use of the word optics has less to do with the science of light (as it once did), and refers instead to how visual impressions of events and issues may be more important than the events and issues themselves.[4]

Reflecting upon the difference between exposure and “namelessness,” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l wrote that Judaism demands anonymity from man. “He must do his job and then vanish.” R. Soloveitchik reflected upon the members of the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (the Men of the Great Assembly), who established many foundational laws and formulated our liturgy, the berakhot, and the recitations of kiddush and havdalah. Who were they? What were their personal stories? “We know next to nothing about them,” R. Soloveitchik remarked, “They did not seek to perpetuate their own names.” Striving diligently to bring the Jewish people together and formulate the Torah she-be’al peh, when these men finished their tasks they disappeared. The Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, like so many of the other individuals who make up the chain of our tradition, “came, did their duty, and then vanished.”[5]

Immediately prior to mention of birkat kohanim, Parashat Naso details the potential circumstances of individuals who may attempt to “stand out,” and establish a “name” for themselves. First predicting the tragic demise of the sotah, the wayward woman, the parashah then describes the ways of the nazir. Although the nazir’s choice to stand apart from the others by abstaining from acts of indulgence may seem positive, the Hakhamim emphasized the Torah’s critique of that decision.[6] The sotah and nazir, then, represent the opposite extremes of name-seeking individuals, and neither is seen positively.

Taking in the current state of our society at the end of his life, the late Oliver Sacks observed:
Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to nonstop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand.
He lamented the fact that we are no longer able to concentrate and appreciate in our own way, silently. We have given up “the amenities and achievements of civilization,” Sacks wrote, forfeiting solitude and leisure and the sanction to be oneself.[7]

Reflecting the broader message of Sefer Bemidbar, Parashat Naso sets forth a perspective on life and accomplishment so relevant to us today. Learning from the mistakes of the sotah and nazir, we discover the detriments of over-exposure. The concealment of God’s name, in contrast, reminds us of the positive value of anonymity. Seeking genuine achievement calls for shielding ourselves from the limelight of fame and searching instead for truths that are determined on our own.

[1] See Commentary of Rashi to Bemidbar 6:27, s.v. ve-samu and to Shemot 20:21, s.v. bekhol.
[2] Kiddushin 71a.
[3] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York, NY, 1979), pg. 60.
[4] Akiko Busch, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency (New York, NY, 2019), pg. 4-7.
[5] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Blessings and Thanksgiving (New York, NY, 2019), pg. 141-3.
[6] See Commentary of Rashi to Bemidbar 6:11, s.v. me-asher.
[7] Oliver Sacks, Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (New York, NY, 2019), pg. 254-5.